“Knitting the Islands”, by Miriam Ellis
A happy and lucky St. Patrick’s day to all my readers! I’ve seen it again and again that small and local businesses became successful due to a great inspiration and some little happenstance bit of luck that got them noticed. Today, I’d like to celebrate with you by offering a shamrock of three ideas I’ve seen taking off in my mother country of Ireland. You may not replicate the exact business model, but do take away the underlying concepts which I strongly believe could succeed in the US. I’ll also point out how you can help luck along with a little creative marketing. Share this article with your team for brainstorming new campaigns, or with anyone in your life who wishes they could start a small business
Finding the “grá”
Ever wondered how to say “I love you” in Irish? One way is “tá grá agam duit” (taw graw ah-gum duts/ditch). It’s not uncommon to hear Irish folk saying they have a “grá” for something when speaking English, and to me, the word not only conveys love but a kind of longing. When people have a “grá” for some really good bread, or a trip to the seaside, or a warm coat they saw in a shop window, it’s what we might call “consumer demand” in American marketing lingo. Pay attention right now, and you may be starting to notice people in the US and elsewhere expressing a special kind of “grá“ for a different life. Recently, such a thread stood out to me on Twitter, started by author and founder Dave Gerhardt.
Software, of course, isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and the more we see of the current state of AI chat, the less many analysts are convinced that it’s going to be a major disruptor at present, but what I observe in this tweet and the replies to it is that people are starting to get tired of the one-dimensional confines of too much screen time. Wanting a satisfying local life and community “IRL” is a great “grá“ statement. Americans are deeply attached to our tech, but more and more, I’m running across peers talking about having an “analog life”, wishing their kids would become “luddites”, or wondering how an off-grid life would feel for their families. More simply put, many people would like to experience more satisfaction in what is right around them.
This dynamic is, in fact, tailor-made for small business entrepreneurs, so let’s look at these three aspirational concepts to see if you or your clients have got a “grá” tugging at you for any of them.
1. Be about life
Within living memory, it was the mark of respectability to have your little weedless patch of green lawn. You constantly cut the grass to keep it under tight control. You yanked out every dandelion – or worse – poisoned your own nest with herbicides. Think things never change for the better? I hear you, but check out TheIrishGardener because now, instead of rolling out bundles of monocrop sod, the Irish are carpeting the outdoors with native wildflower matts. One dimension isn’t enough anymore – folk want flowers and bees and moths and butterflies and bugs and more of everything alive. Yard by yard, they are reinvigorating essential ecosystems. Clever wildflower seed sellers are now marketing their products like seed matts and seed bombs not just to homeowners but as wedding favors, holiday gifts, classroom projects, and more.
There’s been such a base trend in US marketing in which we try to sell things to our neighbors by scaring them. Our ads are full of guns, screaming, threats, panic, anxiety, and danger and it’s very weird contrasting this with the ads I listen to on Irish media which seem to be largely focused on green energy, eating nice things, and enjoying the arts.
Could your great small business reject fear-and-shock-based marketing and instead hinge on beauty and satisfaction in life? We do have that old adage of drawing more flies with honey than vinegar, and if you can align your business with the very strong yearning for life to be abundant, varied, diverse, interesting, healthy, and fun, I think you’re moving away from the old lifeless lawns to the new thriving garden.
2. Be about locality
There’s only one place you can get real Irish seaweed – from the coasts of the country, of course! WildIrishSeaWeeds.com is one of those rare businesses that has seen the potential in a gift of nature that many might pass by without noticing. Seaweed is practically a miracle – you can eat it, bathe in it, and use it as a very carbon-friendly fertilizer that elders have always sworn by. What was once mainly a snack remembered fondly by children is now becoming a serious green industry in Ireland, and not far from where I live, I see a Californian company testing whether they can latch onto a similar demand in the US.
What is overlooked where you live? Is it something that can only be gotten in your local area? Something people used to love but are forgetting about now? Maybe it’s a local food source that’s starting to disappear because no one is using it anymore, or maybe its a skilled craft like basketmaking in a local style, baking or brewing a regional speciality, knitting or sewing a heritage garment, compounding an old-time remedy. Maybe it’s reviving a tradition that used to anchor your community. Could your great small business idea simply be about reconnecting neighbors with what’s special about where you live…a place that may have started to have vanished in our collective consciousness because the screens are blocking the view?
3. Be about people’s simplest pleasures
Our SEO lives may be consumed with ChatGPT right now, or GA4, or what will happen next on or to Twitter, but Padraic Óg Gallagher is up on the balcony of his restaurant, growing real Irish potatoes for his Boxty House in Dublin. If you’ve never had the luck to eat boxty, it’s a delicious potato cake, beloved enough in Ireland to be the inspiration behind a restaurant that’s seen such success, it was able to open a second location. Boxty is not fancy. It’s something your mother would make you from leftovers, something treasured from childhood, the memory of which warms your very soul.
If we look again at Dave Gerhardt’s Twitter thread, he’s not longing for a yacht, nor a manion, nor a pot of gold. He just wants the simple pleasure you get from “building in your community.” Most of us can be plenty happy with just enough, and rather than creating a business idea around elite luxury, consider what you might offer that actually delivers human contentment to the most people. A basic kitchen good that isn’t made well any more? A handcrafted walking stick? A cozy bookshop, a guided tour for visitors, your grandmother’s pecan pie, a wooden toy, a cloth doll, a sturdy garden implement, a bayberry candle, a regional herbal tea?
The simpler and better quality your idea, the more of a welcome change it could be for customers increasingly expressing fatigue from low-quality, mass-produced, and very limited options. America’s Vermont Country Store has been outstandingly successful in helping people relocate fundamental merchandise they can’t find anymore. Study their approach.
Creative marketing of your small business idea
What can you do to catch the eye of your audience? You’ve probably guessed that I’m going to say that, no matter how small your local business, you’ve got to have a website and local business listings. 30 years ago, I would have said this about the telephone book, and however much we may long for more off-screen time, we’ve got to concede that the web makes it so easy to be found! So yes, publish the best website you can budget for, build out your Google Business Profile and other listings, and invest all you can in learning about digital reputation management. It will help you achieve your goals.
That being said, the room there is beyond the web for creative marketing could fill all the pages of the Book of Kells. If you’re starting out quite small, try these low-tech approaches to getting the word out about your new business idea in your community:
Ask an established business owner to host you as a pop-up shop inside their store, perhaps for tourist season or the holidays.
If you produce enough volume, meet with local shop owners to discover whether your product could win a permanent place on their shelves.
Approach local reporters with the most succinct, newsworthy angle of your business to seek press.
Real-world community message boards still exist in some towns. Use them.
Put a sign outside your house or in the window of your apartment. No room? Ask local officials for permission to put a sign in a vacant lot or on a street corner where you’ve seen other signage posted. Be ready to sell them on how your idea benefits the community.
Research local regulations regarding hanging fliers around town.
Research whether there is an opportunity for you to be included in existing print catalogs. 90 million Americans purchase something from a catalog annually, and even as the Internet has become so established in our lives, catalog shopping has continued to trend upwards.
Found or join a local business organization for brainstorming, networking and cross-selling.
Coordinate with other micro-business entrepreneurs to host a shared party in a local park, acquainting your community with your presence and offerings.
Sponsor local teams, events, and people and be cited for it both on and offline.
If your community still has a local radio station, try to get on it, either with an ad or as a guest, to reach 82.5% of US adults.
If you live in an area favored by tourists, contact the local visitors’ center to see how to get listed in their publications.
Advertise in the mailers and bulletins of local houses of worship and schools.
If what you produce relates to any type of food, music, art, cultural, or local festival, participate in it.
“Little as a wren needs, it must gather it.”
I’m closing today with this famous Irish proverb, because it seems right for this moment in America, where the myth of endless growth and the dangers of an unchecked appetite for luxury have done no favors to the economy or environment our whole people must live in. The Irish phrase, “Cé gur beag díol, caithfidh sé a sholáthar,” has traditionally been used to remind us that even the small wren has to work hard to provide for itself – a scenario every small business owner and local business marketer will easily relate to.
But I’m starting to see a double-meaning in this phrase, and new business trends in Ireland are helping me to see it: a more sustainable way to found a venture may be in asking not how much you want, but how little you actually need to be satisfied. SEOs everywhere already know it’s a best practice to get clients to define what success looks like before a project begins so that all parties can see when a goal has been attained. For most small business owners not seeking to become big business owners, achievement will simply mean something along the lines of being able to pay themselves and their staff enough to have a modest, good life. To me, this recognition matters right now, because most customers are in search of the same thing – having just enough.
Whether it’s through thrifting in Ireland or thrifting in America, re-storing in Drogheda or re-storing in Simi Valley, eating local and organic at Moyleabbey Farm in Kildare or at Waxwing Farm in Washington, or preserving traditional crafts that last on that side of the water or on this, tandem trends are indicative of a search for a simpler, better life. 57% of Americans say they shop small to keep money local, and there is no overstating how much both nearby economics and the global climate benefit from this approach. If you’ve decided 2023 is the year to lean into the new/old ways by starting or marketing small businesses, I’d say the luck may be on your side!